In Building 18, Room 1 of Fossil Butte National Monument near Lincoln, Wyo., is a collection of bones from a Coryphodon radians -- a long-extinct mammal.

To laymen, the catalog card identifying where the bones are located is trivial -- and relatively useless -- information.

But to the paleontological and archaeological research community, the bones may provide another clue to help scientists unlock the secrets of America's past.

"Five years ago, researchers just had no idea where some of the most interesting and useful archaeological and historical artifacts were in the collections owned by the National Park Service," said Ann Hitchcock, the agency's chief curator. "What we're trying to do here is change that."

When Russell E. Dickenson took over as director of the Park Service in 1980, one of his goals was to take better care of the agency's vast collection of artifacts and improve public access to them. After intensive competition among several dozen candidates, Hitchcock was hired from the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature in Winnipeg, where she was assistant chief curator. She became the park service's first -- and only -- chief curator.

"We are one of the world's largest museums," said Dickenson, noting that the agency's holdings stretch from Alaska's Aleutian Islands to the Florida Keys. "But we never took the time, over the years, to find out what we had. Ann has done a splendid job giving us a fix on that."

Hitchcock, 38, learned her trade at Stanford University and the University of Arizona, earning BA and MA degrees in anthropology with a specialty in museum sciences. She then worked for the Museum of Northern Arizona as registrar of anthropological collections while teaching museum studies at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

She also served internships at the British National Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.

"A varied background helps," she said, "getting you where you want to go."

When the Park Service position was advertised, Hitchcock said, "I was attracted to this job because it encompassed all of the things I'm interested in, in terms of collection management, museum services and anthropology. I could match my vocation with my avocation. It covers all the scientific fields that a museum can possibly cover."

It is Hitchcock's job to establish policies for the agency's 64 curators and 90 museum aides. The staff members work in only 58 of the nation's 334 park units, though, so the work, she said, is "basically overwhelming."

Hitchcock said Dickenson's program to improve park facilities helped increase funding for her program. But now that the five-year repair program is ending, Hitchcock said she is concerned about whether funding levels will be maintained.

"I think we'll do fine because there is value to the work we're doing," Hitchcock said. "But you never know."

"There are 10 million items, most of them archaeological, in the parks," she said as she thumbs through stacks of reports crammed into a bookcase in her Spartan office. "There are furnishings and artifacts at historic sites, visitor centers and even at contact stations. It's not just the big parks."

Finally, she finds the document she is looking for: a list of the "nationally significant museum objects" found in the parks.

The list is impressive. At the Colonial National Historic Park in Williamsburg is a tent that George Washington slept in while leading the Revolutionary War. Independence National Historic Park in Philadelphia holds Benjamin Franklin's desk, while a collection of books from President John Adams' library is stored at the Adams National Historic Site in Massachusetts.

In addition to identifying objects and cataloging them so they can be found by researchers, Hitchcock's unit works with the park service's "design center" in Harper's Ferry, W.Va., which furnishes the historic structures controlled by the Park Service. As the curators get a better idea of the scope of their collections, the design center will work to place historic objects at other sites from the same era.

"Our policy is to furnish houses with a minimum of conjecture," Hitchcock said.

"We work hard to detect the actual original appearance that gave that structure its intrinsic historic value."

With the indexing project now half complete, Hitchcock plans to turn her attention to two new problems: developing better exhibits to interpret history for park visitors and finding better ways to publicize the parks' historical, anthropological and archaeological resources.

"I think I have another 30 years in my professional life," she said, "and I still have enough challenges here to keep me busy for most of that time."